David Bogomolny
Kaddish maggid

The Baby or the Bathwater?

Gedalyah Reback recently wrote a post titled Reimagining the Rabbinate, in which he wrote that he cringes when he hears religious Jews so enthusiastic about dissolving the Rabbinate. Upon reading this, I cringed. I often appreciate this author’s blogging, but the Israeli Rabbinate only damages our heritage.

I appreciate this fantasy of an Israeli Rabbinate that extends “logistic and monetary aid to Jewish communities the world over”, but fail to understand why Mr. Reback thinks that the Rabbinate would be the organization best suited for this mission. Is this the same Rabbinate that he wishes would “have more uses than bureaucratic stumbling blocks”?

Also, how could one possibly expect the Israeli Rabbinate to speak out “forcefully against attempts to restrict Jewish religious freedoms around the world”? Jews in Israel have fewer religious freedoms than in any other democracy on earth because of the Israeli Rabbinate! Marriage, divorce, burial, kashrut, conversion… The examples of the Rabbinate’s religious authoritarianism are endless, but here’s just one classic case, which I am certain that Mr. Reback is well familiar with because of his particular interest in Jewish status issues and Jewish conversion: In May 2008, Rabbi Avraham Sherman and two other judges of the High Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate ruled that all of the conversions performed by Rabbi Chaim Drukman and Israel’s National Conversion Court since 1999 were retroactively annulled.

That was the largest wave of conversion revocations in Israel, but it wasn’t an isolated incident – the Israeli Rabbinate’s revocation of conversions is still going on today. Also, while Mr. Reback expresses his concerns about the Rabbinate’s “petty policymaking” and bureaucracy, he fails to mention its systemic corruption, of which this case against Rabbi Drukman was symptomatic. The whole story was ugly and political from start to finish, nothing more than a vicious power play against Dati Leumi (National Religious) rabbis; and, finally, in 2012 the Supreme Court finally ruled that conversions supervised by Rabbi Drukman were valid in the eyes of the State. Baruch Hashem.

The Chief Sephardi Rabbi at the time was Rabbi Amar, and he explicitly told Rabbi Sherman not to deal with this case, yet Rabbi Sherman and his court ignored the Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Amar then explicitly told Rabbi Sherman not to publish his ruling, yet Rabbi Sherman gave out copies of it at a rabbinic conference in February 2008 and it was published on the Internet in May 2008. Why didn’t he heed the Chief Rabbi?

This question goes to the heart of the systemic problems with the Israeli Rabbinate, which have allowed this corrupt system to blossom. Here are some facts:

  • City rabbis are not held accountable by anyone. Despite the lofty title held by the Chief Rabbis of Israel, the city rabbis are not subordinate to them, despite being below them in the hierarchy. They are kings of their respective domains, and nobody has the authority to challenge their rulings.
  • The election of rabbis is used as nothing more than political currency, and has absolutely nothing to do with the will of the communities that they should be serving. The body responsible for choosing a city rabbi is composed of representatives from:
    1. The local religious councils (25%), usually appointed by the Minister of Religious Services due to a cripplingly flawed electoral process.
    2. Representatives from the local synagogues (50%), who various Ministers of Religious Services were often involved in selecting, despite this being in violation of the law.
    3. The local governing council (25%), comprised of (often secular) politicians.
  • City Rabbis usually hold their positions until they die. City rabbis can remain in office until the age of 70, at which point the Chief Rabbinical Council invariably chooses to extend the term for another five years until the age of 75… and then extend it again until the age of 80.

The Israeli Rabbinate has no constituency, even among the ultra-Orthodox and National Religious communities, and could never hope to represent the vast diversity of Jewish tradition. The greatest rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox world would never deign to hold the office of Chief Rabbi of Israel – they would consider it an utter embarrassment. The institution has become nothing more than a revenue source and a vehicle of political power; and beyond all of this, the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer found that a devastating 73% of Israelis believe that our country’s religious institutions are corrupt! Shouldn’t this give us pause? How can lovers of Judaism not cringe at this Chillul Hashem?!

Clearly, some people see this situation differently. A Mr. Taylor commented on Mr. Reback’s blog post with this quip:

I would not wish to put words in your mouth, Mr. Reback, but, if I may, it sounds to me that you are advocating “not throwing the baby out with the bath water.” (Always sound, by the way.)

Apparently, the baby Mr. Taylor refers to is the Israeli Rabbinate, which is bathing in the waters of the bureaucracy that concern Mr. Reback… but the baby I would aim to rescue is that of Jewish identity and tradition, which is drowning in the pungent, filthy waters of our corrupt and bureaucratic Israeli Rabbinate.

To say that I’m enthusiastic about dissolving the Israeli Rabbinate would be an understatement.

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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